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A CurtainUp Feature
Does Immersive Theater Risk Being
All Hat and No Cattle?

Sexy! Timely! Unique! Ticket selling adjectives all. But nowadays nothing tops "immersive" as a verbal magnet to get people, especially those under 35, to open their wallets and go to see a show— sometimes again and again!

The strategy used by movie theater executives to get people off their living room couches has been to offer a more luxurious experience: Super comfortable stadium seats and food (that's real food, not just popcorn). Though live theater organizations have also eased up on the rule forbidding audiences to bring drinks and edibles to their seats, their efforts to activate the theater impulse has been to help the audience to feel more a part of what the actors are doing.

For all its emergence as a hot-button style, the immersive theater experience is not really a brand new concept. Neither is it likely to be the death knell for more traditional staging. What's new is its pervasiveness and extraordinary success.

I'm not talking about the common practice of a director using the aisles to have actors enter and exit or about a script using a character to break the fourth wall by addressing the audience directly. Even audience participation similar to what Jonny Donnahoe did a few years ago with Every Brilliant Thing or the way The Mystery of Edwin Drood enlisted the audience to pick the killer and predict the various romantic outcomes.

For a truly immersive and unique experience a show needs to be in a setting that differs sharply from the traditional style of actors and audience facing each other. That requires an existing space to be reconfigured, or for the show to be presented in an atypical venue.

While audiences have indeed embraced this approach, the love affair with all things immersive does entail the danger of producers putting style before substance — counting on the more active and intense audience involving set-up to offset any intrinsic shortcomings of the material. Result: A theatrical version of All hat and no cattle.

Let's look at some of the immersive experiences to be had in and around Manhattan these days keeping that hat/cattle axiom in mind. Is the immersive element (the hat) an enhancement for the script and performances (the cattle)? Would this be worth seeing if more traditionally staged?

For starters, there's the way New York Theater Workshop has transformed its downtown venue into a warehouse of "stuff" for a solo piece aptly entitled The Object Lesson ( our review). After wandering around amidst this flotsam and jetsam and examining contents of drawers, audience members take their seats (mostly on cardboard boxes). No chance to sit back and snooze a bit during some of Geoff Sobelle's less than riveting segments. But no matter. Despite the rejiggered space and Sobelle's talent, his narrative is too anemic to work successfully without this setting.

While the people at New York Theatre Workshop are old hands at transforming their interior, this kind of rearrangement is more difficult for a large Broadway house like the Imperial Theater. The Broadway production of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 marked the culmination of a journey that began in a tiny off-off-Broadway space with people seated at tables as in a club. The original production's success resulted in a move to a tent in the meat district with an even more immersive atmosphere. Thus the challenge for transferring it to Broadway was to retain its immersive aura. Thanks to the brilliant designer Mimi Leon and the rest of the show's creative team they've done so. In addition to on stage seating, there's an extra raised ramp down the orchestra's center section and stairways that enable the actors to interact with the mezzanine as well as orchestra patrons.

But this is not a case of more hat than cattle. Dave Malloy's music and adaptation of part of Tolstoy's epic, the performances and overall spectacle would make Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet a satisfying experience even if it all played out on a proscenium stage. To sum it up with the hat and cattle symbolism: The immersive elements have been fashioned into a splendid hat to sit comfortably atop a prime quality herd of cattle.

For all-out, active immersion, there's nothing like the long-running Sleep No More which has been running at the McKittridge Hotel in Chelsea for six years. It draws on Shakespeare's Macbeth but how many of the characters theatergoers meet and how long the evening lasts depends on how long they stop at the various rooms they pass as they shuffle through dark passageways and up and down stairs.

Actually, a similarly staged play called Tamara by John Krizanc made quite a splash at New York's Armory thirty years ago (pre-Curtainup). As with Sleep No More, people often came back several times to see the scenes previously missed (such repeat visits were encouraged with passes for future visits at lower prices). It was an enjoyable and intriguing experience, but the play owed its being staged mostly to the staging.

Even though Sleep No More is based on classic source material, it's again the staging not the Bard that made this Macbeth so popular. However, while Tamara had a good run, it took Sleep No More to trigger the current vogue for immersive theater. A more recent satisfying in every way immersive hit, David Byrne's Here Lies love , would probably still be running at the Public Theater if all the company's venues weren't needed for their filled to the brim new show schedule — that currently includes Byrne's new Joan of Arc Into the Fire,.

Naturally, not every show that calls itself immersive is as complex as Tamara was or Sleep No More is. Drunk Shakespeare, a Macbeth staged in a bar with drinks and interaction between actors and audience has proved successful enough to become an open run and launch a similar variation on Chekhov, called Drunkl Vanya . Add to that the twice extended Strange Undoing of Prudentia Hart in the McKittrick's bar.

My own take on the immersive staging phenomenon: I'm all for any new ways to keep the theater vibrant and open to new ideas. I think a little more hat than saddle can be excusable if it's done well, which is true for the productions I've mentioned.

Finally, while a classic musical like Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, certainly needs no new twists to be worth seeing any time, it can nevertheless shine and soar anew with a new twist. The Tooting Arts Club production for which the Barrow Street Theater has turned itself into a working pie-shop environment with traditional pie and mash served prior to the performance promises to do just that. It sure sounds like great and delicious fun. ( Link to review).

And so, cheers for all these immersive experiences. But I remain dedicated to the forever wonderful experience of just sitting back in a darkened theater and letting the actors on stage and the story being told carry me into another world. It's a timeless, but also exciting kind of inner immersion.

Note: Though the focus in this article is on New York shows, the vogue for immersive theater is by no means limited to New York.

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